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‘Government’s fares policy could put us all out of business’ says private bus operator

May 10th, 2022 7:00 PM

By Kieran O'Mahony

Damien Long of West Cork Connect is waiting for approval to run hourly buses out of Skibbereen and Bandon.

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Recent reductions in bus fares, which are only available on State-run services, are a real and present danger to private operators who are trying to make a living and are offering better prices, says one West Cork operator

WHILE Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan has poured cold water on plans to revive rail services in West Cork, local bus operators say they are being excluded from government  supports.

The government recently introduced incentives for those using public transport services, including the TaxSaver 20% fare reduction and the introduction this month of a Young Adult Card, which will see fares for those under 24 cut by a further 50%.

Damien Long of West Cork Connect – which runs daily bus services between West Cork and Cork city – said it is highly unfair that reductions in bus fares aren’t applicable to CBO (commercial bus operators) like himself.

‘Minister Ryan has no concept of life in rural Ireland, despite his mother hailing from Bantry, and he doesn’t seem to care about what is happening,’ Damien said.

‘Our company was the first in West Cork to bring in cheap transport and we probably showed both the government and the NTA (National Transport Authority) that this can actually be done and can done an awful lot cheaper.’

Damien points out that his company doesn’t receive any funding from the State and that the fares that he has reduced come from his own costs.

‘I run my service at no cost to the State, and have the exact same licence as Bus Éireann, and yet Minister Ryan just decides that he will give the fare reductions to the PSOs (Public Service Obligation licensees). We have proven that it can be done and can be commercially viable and run a lot cheaper that what the State can ever provide.’

Damien said private operators want reduced fares too, and he hasn’t ruled out going down the legal route, because he believes the moves are breaking competition laws.

‘We at West Cork Connect carry over 80% of the passengers in West Cork and almost every student travelling to Cork city.

‘We’ve basically shown up the government, but by not extending the fare discounts to us, they could put us out of business.’

Having met with Minister Ryan, Damien said he was told there is no funding available yet to extend the subsidised fares to private operators.

‘Even with the 50% reduction given to Bus Éireann on Leap cards, West Cork Connect is still cheaper. If we received it the costs would be even less.

‘If they were really serious about giving reductions to passengers they should have given them to us before Bus Éireann, because it would have cost them less and people could have travelled cheaper.’

Damien sees this as a bid to get rid of commercial bus operators because, with his colleagues in the private sector, they have ‘shown up’ the State operation.

‘In our two-and-a-half years operating, we have never missed a service,’ he said.

Meanwhile, he is still awaiting approval from the NTA for plans to run hourly buses out of both Skibbereen and Bandon.

‘I applied last September and was told it would be an eight-week process, but I am still waiting for them to sanction it.’

A NTA spokesperson said that there is a government commitment to include commercial bus operators in plans to reduce fares for students and young adults by 50%.

‘It has not been possible to implement that change and the NTA is working with the commercial bus operators and the Department of Transport in addressing technical and funding issues in this regard,’ they added.

TD ‘disappointed’ rail revival is derailed

IT’S important that the commercial operators such as West Cork Connect play a part in any transport plans for West Cork, a local government TD has said.

‘We had a welcome move last month with those fare reductions, but this needs to be extended to the commercial bus operators because they provide most of the connectivity in West Cork, which is a very important part,’ said Fianna Fáil Deputy Christopher O’Sullivan.

He added that it was disappointing to hear that his government colleague Minister Ryan had pretty much ruled out the return of the West Cork railway, something he had supported.

Earlier this year, the Cork Commuter Coalition published the West Cork Rail Report, which examined the different options and choices that are available to ensure the effective and efficient return of rail to town and villages in West Cork, since the last trains closed in 1961.

The 37-page report identified three main rail corridors into Kent Station: a 33km Macroom line, an 87km line from Bantry through Bandon, Clonakilty and Skibbereen and a 36km Kinsale route via Carrigaline, with a 4km spur to Crosshaven.

‘I think it’s a project that most people were excited about particularly when the Cork Commuter Coalition revived the plans and the possibility earlier this year. There was a lot of excitement and I think most people believed that a light rail service servicing West Cork would be a great idea,’ said the deputy.

‘It was always going to be fairly aspirational and the fact that most of the old railway lines are now in private ownership and are no longer railway was always going to be difficult.’

However, Deputy O’Sullivan said he will be bringing up other important infrastructure projects for West Cork when he next meets with  Minister Ryan.

‘Bandon badly needs a by-pass as does Bantry and also the realignment of the N71 to make is safer and also the rolling out of a proper bus service that will serve all towns and villages in West Cork.’

While they were in no denial as to the actual scale of bringing back rail to West Cork, Ciarán Meers of Cork Commuter Coalition said it is ‘still disappointing’ that such an idea would be dismissed out of hand by Minister Ryan, without any form of study or investigation.

‘It was great to see how the initial report was received with outpourings of support from the people of West Cork, as well as from the three serving TDs in Cork South West. It really put discussion back on the table,’ said Ciarán.

‘The population of the county is set to grow rapidly by 2040 and 2050, so investment in sustainable rail transport in the region is key to supporting the economic and spatial growth of West Cork towns.’

He said the hope was that a formal study would provide groundwork and information as to potential developments and that if such a project is back on the table in future governments, or under future ministers, there would at least be formal examinations, engineering investigations and actual pricings to make the process a lot easier and more simple.

‘There was a similar process with the Western Rail corridor – a segment was deemed unviable, but at least there was a study and now that the dynamic has shifted a little, the project is given new relevance. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and any substantiate step would be better than the idea languishing as it has for the past half-century.’

Ciarán said they are hoping that Minister Ryan will change tack and at least include West Cork within analyses for the All Island Strategic Rail Review, which intends to expand the national rail network.

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